STEP TWO ERRATA & ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction

Is there such a thing as a perfect book? If there is, I haven’t read one, let alone written one. One of the things I’d hoped to accomplish with this blog was not just to promote the book but to supplement it with additional material. This wouldn’t be much of a blog about the writing and publishing process if I just let the printed book speak for itself, so here we go, a part or “step” at a time, digging in to correct mistakes, struggle over inconsistencies, patch in missing information, and resurrect edited text.

Really, You Haven't Bought My Book Yet?

STEP TWO: Characters

A thank you right up front to Lou Anders of Pyr for the opening quote, and other wisdom throughout.

I think just for brevity’s sake, these two opening sentences were edited out:

In this section I’ll offer some advice on how to create believable and compelling characters, mostly by asking yourself an open-ended series of open-ended questions.

If I have to tell you how important characters are to a fantasy novel—any genre of fiction—you’re in big trouble.

But it’s true, you are in trouble if I have to tell you that.

Chapter 9: Ask, and Answer, Questions

A bunch more stuff was cut from the six questions. I think it still makes sense as published, but consider this:

Who is the character? I’m not asking for simplistic answers here, but deeper thought. Who is the character? Elric of Melniboné. Okay, that’s a character, and a successful one for author Michael Moorcock, but Elric is lots more than a name. In fact, I’m not convinced you should even name your characters yet. We’ll talk later about language and naming conventions. You should probably do that thinking before you settle on names, so in your notes you can use placeholders like HERO, VILLAIN, LOVE INTEREST, FOIL, WISE MAN, and so on.

I always start with those placeholders, not to reduce characters to broad types, but, believe it or not, as a way to avoid just that. Sometimes you have to confront yourself. Confront yourself with broadly drawn characters at the beginning and challenge yourself to fill them out in ways that make them much much more than just a LOVE INTEREST.

I like this line from the very bottom of page 44, and I think it bears repeating:

Easily accomplished missions rarely make for interesting stories.

Note that I said, “rarely,” and not, “never.” Sometimes stories hinge on things like, “All we wanted was to go to White Castle, and now we’re on this crazy adventure.” If you can write the fantasy version of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, more power to you.

Another line that bears repeating:

There is no story compelling enough to support unmotivated characters.

This process of asking and answering questions is a very powerful tool. Sometimes I do it literally. I actually write down lists of questions as though I’m conducting an interview. You don’t necessarily have to be that literal, but I think you get the idea. You have to try to debunk yourself before disappointed readers do it for you.

Chapter 10: Start with the Villain

Here’s an interesting bit that was edited out, and again I don’t remember why. It could be that I was afraid to have to support the assertion that there’s never been a story that’s actually driven by the hero. In all honesty, I’m not prepared to defend that stance, and would love to see comments to this post proving me wrong. Here’s the “offending” text:

Off the top of my head I can only think of one major fantasy franchise that begins with the hero (in this case, the heroine) taking active steps to move the story forward, and that’s L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s fantasy The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy, the heroine, begins the story by leaving home, and . . . but wait, isn’t it the cranky old lady who we later (in the movie at least) see in the guise of the Wicked Witch, who forces Dorothy’s hand by threatening poor little Toto? Okay, maybe there hasn’t ever, in all of recorded history, been a genre novel that begins with the positive actions of the hero.

Has there?

I can’t believe I got away with that Blue Oyster Cult reference on page 50. That’s cheesy, but it makes me smile.

Remember those excised “Example World” sidebars? This chapter had a long one. Here it is:

Example World: The Questions That Make a Villain

Hey, wait a minute, we started with a hero for our example story, didn’t we? I thought I just said you should start with a villain. Well, you should start with a villain, except for those times when you don’t. And I guess this is one of those times.

We already identified our villain in the sidebar in section 2-3: “The villain begins as a rival swordsman who was disgraced years ago and driven into exile. He plans to return to the empire, assassinate the emperor, force the princess to marry him, and seize control of the empire that had turned its back on him.” But we need more than that—lots more. Lets break it down.

In that sidebar I called him, “he,” but let’s grow out of that “everybody has to be a white male” thing, at least a little, and change that to “she.” She was a rival swords . . . person? Whatever—a rival soldier who was disgraced years ago and driven into exile.

Disgraced how? Driven into exile where?

Questions: Was she disgraced when she was found in bed with an officer of the enemy’s army? Was she disgraced when she was defeated in one-on-one combat with our eventually-to-be-armless hero? Was she disgraced when it was revealed that she used some kind of fantasy-world performance-enhancing drugs, or magical arm bands that made her a better fencer, and that’s against the law/tradition of the empire? You could spend a day brainstorming answers to the question of how she was disgraced, and in fact, you should spend at least that long. But for the sake of time, words, and sanity, let’s pick the first one and delve deeper into that:

She was disgraced when she was found in bed with an officer of the enemy’s army. More questions, then: Why was she in bed with him if he’s the enemy, and who is he anyway? He could have been her childhood sweetheart, the only one who was ever nice to her when everyone else ostracized her because . . . hmm, wait, now we have to think of some reason she felt ostracized. I like that. Villains often come from that kind of confused background of negative reinforcement. There’s another day’s worth of thinking at least.

And we haven’t even gotten to the circumstances of how they got together. Did the enemy officer also suffer some terrible fate? Maybe he was executed for having slept with the enemy, so now our villain hates both the empire, for sending her into exile, and their rival kingdom, for killing her true love. Maybe her lover betrayed her, using some secret she gave him in her dalliance with him so now she feels abandoned by both her lover and her nation.

Let’s fast forward through days’ worth of questions and start with a paragraph that tells us who our villain is:

The villain was once hailed as the greatest heroine of the empire. There was only one man she wasn’t able to defeat in single combat: an enemy soldier of remarkable skill. Her fame as a fighter made her the target of every up-and-coming swordsman in the empire, while her beauty and fortune made her the empire’s most eligible bachellorette. Maybe seeking the father-figure she never had, she found herself irresistibly drawn to the one man who could never defeat her: the enemy soldier. After sneaking into the enemy camp, she found her way into her rival’s bed. They professed their undying love to each other, then a sneak attack from her own empire, an attack she was not party to planning, interrupted their dalliance and her lover was killed. She was imprisoned as a traitor. The night before she was to be hanged, she escaped, vowing to avenge the death of her lover and the duplicitous empire she once served, which had allowed her to sneak into her rival’s tent to keep him occupied while they attacked. They knew, somehow, that she had feelings for this enemy soldier, and exploited her for their own gain. She has become a bitter, resentful, hate-driven woman who wants nothing less than the destruction of the empire that cast her out.

Hmm. Section 2-3: A remnant of a thankfully-abandoned organizational scheme. . . .

Another good example of why it was better to cut these sidebars. There’s really no practical way to walk you through this process, which is necessarily long and disorganized.

Chapter 11: Nurture Your Heroes

Not much to add here, but here was another long sidebar:

Example World: The Swordsman Without Arms

At last, we’ve come to the greatest swordsman in the kingdom, who has lost both his arms.

We know already that he will have lost his arms in a duel with the villain, then through his own ingenuity build himself a pair of fantasy-mechanical arms and re-learn his martial skills. We know that he was “supremely self-confident,” before he lost his arms, anyway, and that he’s “fiercely loyal” to the emperor, who he looks up to as a father figure. He also intended to marry the emperor’s daughter and one day succeed the emperor, continuing the aging monarch’s policies.

From this start we really don’t know if this guy is the hero or the villain. If the aging emperor is a brutal fascist and our “hero” wants to continue his policies, this is a villain we’re talking about here. Then there was the concern that we’re starting to re-write the movie Gladiator, so let’s look out for that. What I wrote above also seems to indicate that they come from a patriarchy, otherwise, why wouldn’t the aging emperor’s daughter succeed him as empress? We haven’t really started thinking about political structures yet, and won’t until we get to Part 5, but when asking and answering questions about characters, you’ll quite often find that you’re simultaneously engaging in worldbuilding.

The hero was the greatest swordsman the empire has ever known. How did he get to be that way? Is that even true, or was there some degree of propaganda at play? Maybe he wasn’t that great—after all, he was dismembered by the villain at some point. Was he really good, but also really ego-driven? He might have had the skills to defeat the villain, regardless of her newfangled power sword, but if he went in with too much self-confidence maybe he gave her the opening she needed to defeat him. Do we have something to say about the fine line between self-confidence and self-delusion?

If he had found the ability to build steampunky mechanical arms that are so sophisticated he can use them in complex fencing maneuvers, he must have had some background in engineering, right? At least he knew someone who could make them, or teach him how to make them, didn’t he? If he was just a great swordsman then suddenly, entirely out of nowhere, cobbles together some kind of bionic arms, we’re in pretty sketchy territory, aren’t we?

How and when did he meet the emperor? Does he come from a noble family who would have been at receptions and state functions at the palace so the emperor knew him and his whole family all along? Did he rise in the ranks of the military and come to the emperor’s attention after some kind of heroic victory against the enemies of the realm? Does this empire have some kind of gladiatorial tradition so there’s always someone filling the role of Greatest Swordsman in the Realm? Uh oh, Gladiator again!

Ah, questions, questions, questions, thought about and scribbled down for hour after hour of hard work, which results in:

The hero was conscripted into the Imperial Army (hey, look, we’ve built into the world the idea of an organized Imperial Army—let’s remember that for later!) when his entire family was killed in a tragic fire. He was only ten years old, but quickly found a home among the soldiers, soaking up their ways like a sponge. He never knew the circumstances under which his house was set fire, and remembers only that his father was a particularly talented watchmaker. The hero’s earliest memories are of his father teaching him about the intricate inner workings of the precision mechanisms he created. After the fire, while still just a child, the hero helped other soldiers by serving as a blacksmith, armorer, and battlefield engineer. He was a focused kid, as eager to learn the workings of various siege engines as he was to practice swordplay, but eventually he set his tinkering aside and concentrated on learning everything he could of the martial arts.

Eventually he was assigned to some kind of Green Beret/SEAL style special forces unit (we’ll make up the specifics of that later). When the emperor’s teenage daughter is kidnapped by some bad guy organization (also be named later), his unit is assigned to rescue her. Our hero is the lone survivor of that mission, but manages to bring the princess back alive. Of course it’s love at first sight, and the grateful emperor also takes a shine to this heroic, loyal swordsman—and remembers his father, who was actually the Royal Watchmaker (so maybe watches and timepieces are particularly important to our world—we’ll let that percolate.). The hero learns from the emperor that his family’s house was targeted by a similar Navy SEAL-type organization from the rival realm in a successful effort to prevent his father from inventing some invention we’ll decide on later. Now our hero has a personal grudge against that rival special forces organization—one that the villain is or was a part of (better go back and add that to our villain’s back-story).

Now we have a hero who has a personal reason to hate the villain, a background that makes it plausible that he could build himself replacement arms, and a past incident (the rescue of the princess) that explains how he’s come to the court’s attention and why they accept him as the realm’s finest swordsman.


If you do this right, by the way, you might have about ten times more information on this guy than I have here.

Whew, is right.

Chapter 12: Gather Your Supporting Characters

The Harlan Ellison story referenced on page 57, “Life Hutch,” was originally published in If magazine in 1956. While I was writing this book I had just recently re-read it in the collection A Touch of Infinity, which is half of an Ace Double with what I believe is Harlan’s only published novel, The Man With Nine Lives. Both are ©1960 by Harlan Ellison. This is the most prized of my collection of Ace Science Fiction Doubles. I have 172 of them—not yet a complete collection.

I think the story about Troy Denning adding that character into Faces of Deception halfway through writing it is worth noting again. Never be afraid of a good idea, but don’t keep writing the first half of the book.

I think the editor thought I was being too snarky again with this bit, which was edited out, and he was right, but here it is, snark and all:

Characters can tell each other an awful lot about the world in which they live, but as always, proceed with caution.

“This is a spaceship,” one astronaut said to the other astronaut. “We use it to travel in space.”

Okay, that’s pretty simplistic, but I think you get the idea. Both of these astronauts surely know what a spaceship is and that they’re in one. A sentence like: The two astronauts sat at the controls of their spaceship, would certainly make more sense. You should also avoid dialog that begins with: “As you know . . .” If you don’t believe me, read this pearl:

“As you know,” one astronaut said to the other astronaut, “this is a spaceship. We both know that we use it to travel in space.”

Yeah. Duh.

As an exercise, spend an hour one day watching any daytime soap opera. The writing of these things must be quite a chore, something like fifty script pages five days a week, literally every single week forever. Yikes. But they do that “as you know” kind of thing all the time. Most soap opera scenes are short confrontations between two characters, and the first three-quarters or so of every scene is recap, in which the characters remind the audience of what happened yesterday, or last week, bringing people who can’t watch every day up to speed. Then the last quarter, or even less sometimes, is a single revelation of new information followed by a music cue then commercial. Now that I’ve told you that, by the way, you will never be able to enjoy a soap opera again. All you’ll see is that formula playing itself out over and over and over again.

You’re welcome.

I can’t remember if I mentioned the Galen thing already, but there he is again.

The joke around the editorial offices at Wizards of the Coast, for a while, was that every slush pile submission featured a hero named Galen and a heroine named Bronwyn. Since my editor at Adams Media is my former boss at Wizards of the Coast, Peter Archer, the names Galen and Bronwyn appear here as an inside joke. It was Peter who first voiced that complaint.

If you have a manuscript at home that features characters named Galen or Bronwyn, go change their names right now.

And this chapter’s excised sidebar:

Example World: A Few Supporting Characters

We’ve decided that this is a big, high fantasy novel, so our armless swordsman tale will have a dozen characters or more, but I still have a lot of thinking to do, about the setting, the political structure, the world’s religion or religions, and so on before I can really know how many characters I need and why, but I have a few ideas to start with.

I’ve mentioned the emperor and his daughter. I need to start asking and answering questions about them.

The emperor is someone we want our hero to respect, so we should think about making him worthy of that. Is he just a kindly old man, or is he tough, virile, and honorable? Is he a wise man, or kind of simple? Does he have a sense of humor? Does he take things personally? If his subjects love him, why? If they hate him, why? Do they love him because they don’t know he’s really a jerk, or do they hate him because they don’t know he’s really sacrificed something significant to keep them safe?

The emperor’s daughter is a whole category we probably should have talked about more above, but will later when we talk about romance. She’s the “love interest.” Our armless hero loves her—why? Is she pretty but kind of dippy? Beautiful and intelligent? When she hears that her boyfriend’s arms have been cut off does she dump him for the second best swordsman in the realm, or does she rush to his side, professing her undying love in sickness and in health? Does she even know the hero loves her? Does she have any knowledge of the villain and her motivations and back-story? Did she have anything to do with that?

The villain was betrayed by someone within the emperor’s military. It wasn’t our armless swordsman, so maybe this guy is still around. If so, is he the only one who knows about this betrayal? Is he the emperor? If we want readers to like and respect the emperor the way our hero does, we don’t want him to have had anything to do with something so mean spirited, so now we have an idea for a minor villain: “the guy behind the guy.” Who is he, and where is he now? Is he still part of the emperor’s inner circle? Who was he and where was he then, has he repented in some way? Does he even know that the woman he betrayed is still alive? Why did he manipulate her into that situation in the first place? Has he done that sort of thing before or since?

Questions, questions, and more questions.

Did I call someone “dippy”? Sorry.

Chapter 13: Give Them Voice

This one is pretty much intact as originally written, and there was no example world sidebar.

So much for Step Two!


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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1 Response to STEP TWO ERRATA & ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction

  1. Gamabunta says:

    Mister Athans:

    I´m a very novel writer (not yet published) in a country that doesn´t have much of a fantasy tradition, Chile. I´d like to thank you for the useful advise contained both in your book and this blog. While the language advise isn´t of much use for me (I write in spanish, so the proper use of “thou” and “shant” is quite lost on me), I´ve found your world-building and character building counsel specially useful in order to create a place and people that can stand on their own without appearing of being made of cardboard.

    Your explanation about why it´s not a good idea to overuse invented words in a fantasy setting was simply genius.

    Once again, thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience.

    Live long and prosper

    Juan de Dios

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